Epistemic status: Trying to translate a network of ideas into a linear post.
First question: Is there a useful definition of sin that doesn’t involve religion?
Informally, we can define sin as a corruption of the soul that twists people in ways they can’t easily find a way out of, even if they know it’s hurting them (sin ca also cause someone to hurt others, but that’s a second-order effect). Mathematically, we can think of sins as traps of inadequate equilibria – locally optimal habits that are pretty bad globally. Since the reaction to being in a bad place is to look for anything you can do locally to improve the situation, this makes them self-reinforcing.
This is consistent with the religious idea of sin – if there is a caring God who also respects free will (for whatever reason) out there, he’d be able to see we’re at a bad local optimum even when we can’t. We can model a God who respects free will as thinking of us the way we think of ML programs we try to train. And God tries to steer us away from bad local optimum just like we do to them.
Consider the classical examples: Gluttony is when you can’t stop eating, even when it’s bad for your health, even when you’re stuffed and have long since stopped enjoying the food. You want to get back to having a healthy appetite and eating just the right amount to enjoy it, but you don’t know the way anymore. Consider lust (in its negative form) – it can make you chase gratification, or power, when what you really want is just to hold someone you love. And I’ve written here before about pride.
Thinking of sin as internal corruption also explains why they can be forgiven if someone makes genuine repentance, why the prescription for them is prayer and meditation instead of punishment, and why thinking the wrong thing can be a sin even if you never act on it.
Compare crime, which is a result of individuals optimizing for themselves instead of society. In principle, this is a much more straightforward problem with a simple solution: Have society impose a penalty on crimes so that it’s never optimal to commit it on an individual level (warning: The details on this may get complicated). Unlike sins, which no one wants to fall into, crimes need to be disincentivised in order for people to avoid doing them.
We can’t do this for sin (among other reasons, we normally can’t decompose people into sub-characters and punish only some of them). This suggests the idea of priests – people who can help steer you away from suboptimal situations, but whose status in the community is based on spiritual wisdom rather than order-based authority. Therapists have a similar role in secular society, but priests seem to fit a bit better, since their social status is (in theory) based on a scale orthogonal to normal authorities (while therapists are somewhat inbetween), and because they can get away with being judgemental when they think it’s appropriate.
This all leads up to suicide, which follows the definition of a sin pretty closely but we tend to treat as a crime in practice, by putting people who threaten or attempt it in suicide jail (or suspending them from school, or work). I wonder if priests at confession would work better as targets to talk to about suicide. (Well, priest stereotypes, anyway. I’ve never met a real priest and they’re probably far less helpful than stereotype suggests). If nothing else, at least they can’t forcibly hospitalize anyone.
But if suicide is a sin (and we switch back to religion for a moment), this raises the question: The punishment of sin is hell. What’s suicide hell1 like?
Well, if hell is just a terrible place full of demons that torture you forever, that’s that. But if it’s not run by demons, if hell is just other people… Maybe it’s better. Maybe being surrounded by everyone who’s ever understood, they can finally find the cure they never could in life.
I guess that’s not too different from suicide jail, which by all accounts isn’t a nice place to be stuck in (unless suicide hell is better because it passed a critical mass, or because the inmates are running it). But if I’m being honest, this equivalence is why I’ve never been able to hate the concept of suicide jail. On the one hand, I’m plenty mad at the actual practice of forcing people to watch what they say to their therapist when they’re hurting. But on the other hand, I believe that if heaven isn’t up there we should try and make it. I mean, in practice this almost always ends disastrously and needs to be destroyed immediately, so in practice I’m pretty set against anything but incrementalism. But I can’t bring myself to hate the core feeling behind the attempt.
1. When I left Israel, a friend gave me a book called Kneller’s Happy Campers, about a guy who commits suicide and ends ends up in suicide afterlife. This wasn’t even the first book she’d given me about suicide afterlife. When I asked her about it, she said it’s a whole subgenre of Israeli literature. ↩